Palestinians struggle to put food on Israeli tables

Farmers covet large and nearby market, but dietary laws, politics create obstacles.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
March 5, 2012 19:59
Palestinians selling olive oil.

Palestinians selling olive oil 390. (photo credit: The Media Line)

 
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Palestinian farmers say they can’t penetrate the Israeli market because of reluctance by Israelis to buy products with a Palestinian brand.

Israeli agriculture officials acknowledged the problem, but said they were trying to help by exposing Israelis to more Palestinian wares.

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Agriculture is a pillar of the Palestinian economy. While they export to the Arab world, the US and Europe, Palestinians are trying to sell their “Product of Palestine” brands to in neighboring Israel, which is a big market and no more than hour’s truck drive away.

“We currently sell our products in 16 different countries around the world, but we still do not sell in Israel,” Nasser Abu Farha, director of Canaan Fair Trade, told The Media Line. “We have talked to Israeli buyers in the past and there is some kind of reluctance or worry or concern about a Palestinian brand with a Palestinian cultural identity of the producers making it in Israel.”

Hawking their plump vegetables, herbs and olive oil, Palestinians from the West Bank have brought their products to the recent Agro Mashov agriculture fair in Tel Aviv to try and crack the Israeli market. They had their own national section in the exhibition

It’s not that Israelis don’t buy Palestinian produce. They do -- about $300 million worth last year. But it’s usually unprocessed fruits and vegetables later repackaged and sold under Israeli labels.

Palestinian agriculture, which is devoted mainly to field crops, vegetables and fruit, makes up about 9% of its gross domestic product. Israel is the Palestinians’ largest market and they export 60% of their products there. They also import about half of their agriculture needs from Israel, including plastic for irrigation and hothouses, pesticides and fertilizers.

Mohammad Amro, the financial manager of Thimar Nature’s Produce, located in a farm near Jericho in the Palestinian Authority, said his company’s vegetables and herbs are packaged by an Israeli company and clearly marked a product of Palestine. But they are exported in Europe and not sold in Israel. 

“In the beginning, there was a challenge, but now we have good relations with Israeli companies which support us and provide us with support to market our products outside,” Amro told The Media Line.

“But we are participating in this exhibition to look for opportunities to have markets inside Israel,” he added. “A lot of Israeli people came [to our booth] and were very happy and asked us ‘From where we can buy this?'”

While one can usually find Israeli products in Palestinian supermarkets in the West Bank, they’d have trouble locating Palestinian brands in supermarkets in Israel. But one major Israeli retailer, Rami Levi, founder and chief executive of an eponymous chain of supermarkets, said he would be glad to put their products on his shelves.

“I’m willing to put any product in my supermarkets that meets our standards and has a kosher license and is good value. It doesn’t matter if it’s Palestinian, Israeli or from Greece or wherever,” said Levy, some of whose outlets are in the West Bank where Israeli and Palestinian consumer shop side by side.

However, asked by The Media Line about Palestinian brands, he could not say whether he carried any products Made in Palestine items. Levy said he was slated to meet with Palestinian farmers and food merchants in the near future to discuss deals.

“Yes, there are difficulties, difficulties for Israelis,” said Haim Alush, the chief executive officer of Agro Mashov. He said one of the exhibition’s goals is to encourage Israelis to buy more Palestinian products. “But it is a result of years of hate and years of problems, which I don’t want to elaborate on here … We want that supermarkets in Israel to display and sell the tahini and tomatoes from Nablus and Jenin and even from the Gaza Strip.”

Many Palestinian products are blocked because they don’t meet Israeli health standards or lack a certificate testifying that the food is kosher. Where they succeed usually is where local supply is insufficient..

“We have an opportunity [to sell in Israel] because the demand exceeds the supply,” said Jamal Al-Khalili, the chief marketing officer for Nakheel Palestine, which runs a large vegetable and date plantation near Jericho.

“We have a challenge and Israeli competitors. But we have a competitive advantage over them, which I will not talk about,” he told The Media Line. “We are here to tell the Israelis that we want to cooperate together and to open the market with them.”

Israel is working with the Palestinians to improve their quality so they can reach new export markets,  Samir Moaddi, chief Israeli agriculture adviser to the Palestinian Authority, told The Media Line. “There is no politics here. The Israeli market is their biggest market.”

Officially the sales are about NIS 500 million to 600 million ($130 million to $158 million), but unofficially it probably more than a billion shekels a year, Moaddi said.  “It’s their main market.”

Moaddi is bringing together Israeli supermarket chain with the Palestinian farmers to close more deals. But he did acknowledge a number of challenges, the first and foremost being kashrut certificates, which Israel’s major food retailers require before putting anything on their shelves But this seal of approval is difficult for Palestinians to get due to difficulty of getting rabbis to supervise the production in the West Bank, where Israeli law bars them from entering. 

“There is no policy against Palestinian-labeled products being sold in Israel. Definitely not. There are no politics here,” he said.

“There are great differences between Israeli and Palestinian agriculture, but today we see the Palestinians changing and I’m sure this is because of the cooperation between us,” Moaddi said.

Canaan Fair Trade works with about 1,500 Palestinian farmers from over 40 villages in the northern West Bank to produce olive oil, herbs and tahini. They supply major international retailers including Whole Foods in the US and Sainsbury in Britain.

“We hope we come to a point where a Palestinian brand can be successful in Israel. That is why we are here to exhibit our products,” Abu Farha said.

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